Politics may not get Minnesotans out to vote, but beer and sausage might

Tom Wallace

Tom Wallace

Minnesota has long boasted the highest voter turnout in the country for national elections. A whopping 75 percent of us rocked the polls in 2016.

But we can climb right down from that high horse when it comes to local and municipal elections. In 2013, just 28 percent of Minneapolitans and 15.5 percent of St. Paulites voted for mayor. 

The solution? Replace politicians with craft pours and pork products. Sort of.

Minnesota’s chapter of the national nonprofit, FairVote, has been teaming up with local chefs and brewers in the Twin Cities to host tasting events where people sample food and drinks, then elect their favorite using a ranked-choice voting system. FairVote MN advocates for cities around the state to adopt ranked-choice voting, a system they think will make elections more democratic and, eventually, improve voter turnout. They've put on over a dozen of these tasting events, serving samples of anything from wine to waffles.

“Anything you can put on a ballot, we’ve done,” Jeanne Massey, executive director of FairVote MN, says.

Their biggest tasting yet was an all-you-can-eat sausage festival called “Best of the Wurst,” which will make its second annual appearance Sunday, September 17 from 2 to 6 p.m. at Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis.

The $35 admission price gets you a pint, a raffle ticket, and as many sausage samples as you can stomach from a dozen restaurants in the Twin Cities. People come to eat, drink, and enjoy performances from local musicians and comedians. But most importantly, they come to carry out their civic duty of electing one sausage the “best ‘wurst” using ranked choice voting.

“We thought, ‘What would bring people to a house party?’” Massey told me at their last event, a beer tasting at Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park. “I don’t want to go into a hot gymnasium to learn about politics; I want to drink beer. I want to eat sausages!”

At their August 22 tasting at Steel Toe, “constituents” packed into the makeshift polling center in the backroom of the brewery and evaluated the merits of the four “candidates” on the tray in front of them: a golden ale, an IPA, a dark ale, and a tart ale.

After some sipping and schmoozing, the empty glasses signaled that the group was well-informed on each candidate and prepared to fill out their ballots. Instead of casting only one vote for their favorite of the four—the “first-past-the-post” process standard throughout most of the country—voters at Steel Toe got to rank all four beers from favorite to least favorite.

Once the ballots were collected and tallied, the beer that received the fewest first-choice votes was eliminated, and its votes were instantly redistributed to the second-ranked beer on each ballot. The process repeated until one beer—the dark ale—received more than 51 percent of the vote and became the majority winner.

This process, according to FairVote MN, elects a victor with broader appeal among more people, preventing an exceptionally polarizing candidate (say, a particularly hoppy IPA or a particularly orange demagogue) from rising to power. It also allows people to vote for a candidate with less mass appeal (like a sour ale or a third-party candidate) without fear that their vote will be a “spoiler” or a throw-away vote.

Critics counter that the system is overly complicated and can actually discourage voters from coming out to the polls, but Cindy Bielke, a communications consultant for FairVote MN, said that concern is one of the main reasons they host these events.

“The goal is to expose people to the concept of ranked-choice voting and to give them an opportunity to actually do it so they can understand that it’s easy to do, and that it's not as overwhelming as critics will try to claim," Bielke says. “All the research is showing that as soon as people get the chance to do it, they like it, and they want to do it.”

In fact, Minneapolis has been using the system since 2006, and St. Paul since 2011. A few more cities in Minnesota have been discussing moving to ranked-choice, like St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Park, Hopkins, Bloomington, and Minnetonka. 

“The model of democracy that people have been presented with is so unappealing that something isn't working,” Bielke says. “Ranked-choice voting probably isn’t the only thing that needs to change to make things better, but it’s a really big change that could make a big difference.”

With ranked choice, FairVote hopes people will start to restore their faith in the process of democracy. And maybe, just maybe, it can eventually motivate voter turnout better than a beer or sausage might.